Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Interview with Steve Thacker, City Manager of Centerville, Utah

Editor’s note: This interview is the third in a series of conversations I had with managers at the ICMA Annual Conference in Milwaukee. Each of these managers represents a city or county that has offered or is currently offering Management Internships – one- to two-year postgraduate work and mentoring experiences that help new MPAs and MPPs get their feet wet in city management.

City Profile:

Centerville City has approximately 16,000 people and only 51 full time employees. It has a number of part time and limited employees, as we call them. [They are] seasonal employees in our Parks and Recreation department.

The total budget is about $16 million. The largest source of sales tax revenue is Wal-Mart. The Wal-Mart came to town in 2007. Just before the recession hit. We are very grateful to have had the Wal-Mart sales tax to prop us up.

Steve Thacker

Where did you start your career and how did you become a city manager?

Well, I was in the MPA program at BYU. Between my first and second year of graduate school I did an internship in the city of Mesa, Arizona. Mesa is where I grew up. I did settle on a specialty of city management; however, upon graduation I took a job as a performance auditor for the State of Arizona for the legislative branch. They were beginning a performance audit division in their Auditor General’s office. I took that opportunity and did that for five years. It was excellent experience in building the skills that became very useful and valuable later on as a city manager. After five years of doing that I had my first opportunity in city management – the town manager, the first town manager – in Snowflake, Arizona. After six years there, I became the city administrator in CaƱon City, Colorado, which is at the mouth of the Royal Gorge. I stayed there eight and a half years and then took the job in Centerville. I began that job in February of 1998.

My career has spanned 33 years in public service; 28 years in city government at this point.

What is the greatest issue facing your city?

We have several land use planning initiatives. They are probably our hot-button issues.

They’re probably the greatest issues because any time you alter a general land use plan you have folks who may perceive that as detrimental. For example, we have adopted a plan for the redevelopment of the commercial part of Main Street. Some sections of Main Street are residential but we have a section that is commercial. It has not been a vibrant part of our community and the council wanted to create a plan that would bring redevelopment to that corridor, including some enhanced public transit. What that means, bottom line, is higher density and mixed use development that includes multi-family units. Then there would be commercial developments and also the possibility of more intense public transit, whether it’s bus rapid transit or a streetcar type thing as part of the South Davis Transit Initiative. So the combination of some higher residential density along the Main Street Corridor and the more intense public transit really alarmed a lot of people. We’ve had a lot of controversy on that. The City Council has gone back and revisited that plan and tweaked it in response to that: reducing the height of the buildings and the numbers of units in them and has taken out any reference to light rail specifically. Although it still refers to public transit generally until further studies are done to find out what else might be feasible.

And then we have a foothills management plan. The area on the east side on the mountainside is largely undeveloped. It’s mostly outside city limits. We want to control what happens to that land so we have developed a management plan expressing the potential uses of the mountainside, the constraints on development, and what the guiding values should be for the development of that land.

We’re also putting in a fiber optic network – Utopia – and they’re finally getting around to building the network in Centerville. That’s a high-profile subject right now. There are 11 cities that actually pledged funds for Utopia, that have an obligation to pay a yearly assessment. We are one of those cities.

How do you avoid pigeon-holing yourself in one particular department or specialty in city management?

It would be best to have some strengths in specialty areas...more in-depth experience. But you’d also need some exposure to many other areas. If you just know a little bit about a lot of things, that might work too if you can convince them that you have the skill set that will serve you well [in that position]. City managers can move up specializing in finance or personnel or planning or even public works for example. But if you have some exposure to a number of different areas that just broadens your appeal.

What’s the most awkward interview question you’ve ever asked or been asked?

That’s a tough one. I remember many years ago when I was trying to find my first city management job. They asked me how I felt about receiving grants. I suspected that the person asking the question was an ultra-conservative who didn’t like the idea of the strings that come attached with receiving grants. I think the question was “Would you seek and accept grants on behalf of the city?” and guessing the motives and philosophy of the person asking the question I took the safe route and said, “Well, you know it depends upon the position of the city council. Do they want to seek and use grants or not?” That’s a pretty safe answer.

Let’s talk a little about your management internship. Given that many cities are cutting these types of jobs, was it difficult to fund this position and “sell” it to your council?

It was not. No, it wasn’t difficult. It is a year-by-year budget decision. As I anticipate whether I have the collection of projects or accumulation of projects that would justify an intern I make that decision when I prepare the annual budget. Then I put those amounts in. If I think I may want one, I put that amount in. The council has been supportive; they’ve never turned me down when I requested it. But as you know we only have 51 full-time employees…it’s a pretty skimpy staff. That includes police and public works and parks maintenance people and all that so we don’t have a lot of bodies available to do special projects and assignments. The council understands that so they’ve always been supportive when I’ve asked for that funding.

How many times have you offered a position similar to this one?

Let me just talk about the last six years. I’ve had five interns in the last six years. I missed last year. Other than that I’ve had one every year. One year I did share the intern with the city of Bountiful. We split it half and half, twenty hours a week for each city. But it didn’t work so well. I don’t think there is enough accountability with the intern split between two employers. I feel like I didn’t have as much control over it. One year, I had a three way internship with three cities. That one worked ok because I actually had the intern for six weeks, somebody else had him for six weeks, and another city had him for six weeks. As opposed to trying to split their time every week, that type of sharing seemed to work better, although we only had him for six weeks.

As a member of the ICMA Task Force on Internship Guidelines, we’ve discussed changing the stigma of internships from “coffee and copies” to an “apprenticeship.” How would your management intern fit into that category?

I like that. That is really how I’ve been thinking about the intern. I’ve had interns not simply because I think they can give us some value for the relatively low wage we pay them but because I am committed to preparing the next generation of city managers. I have a lot of passion for this profession and I want to give that future generation of city managers a good start. The way I’ve looked at it is: “This is an apprenticeship. I want to give that intern as much insight into the challenges of being a city manager as possible and allow them to learn those things that they’re not going to learn in a classroom.” Because of that, one of the regular parts of my internships or apprenticeships is I have a weekly time set with my intern throughout the four-month period…an established block of time where the intern not only reports on the assignments but also can ask questions about anything that they’ve observed while they’re on the job. If they’ve observed something at a council meeting, interaction between the council members, the dynamics of the meeting, if they’ve observed something in the departments they’ve been working in…Anything at all. The issues facing the community, some of the public reaction at public hearings, they can ask about anything. There is nothing off-limits. And that’s how I think they’re going to gain the insights that they’re not going to gain in the classroom. It’s by seeing those things in real life and having the chance to talk about them.

I think that’s in line with the idea that this is an apprenticeship… a way for someone to really become a city manager someday.

What trends, positive or negative, do you see from recent MPA grads?

I don’t know if there are any negatives that I can think of offhand, and I see a lot of positives. They’re coming out of the BYU program with great quantitative skills, the use of technology and software, in order to document and analyze data is really amazing. My current intern, Ben, has an amazing ability to analyze data by the use of Excel and other software, some of it I wasn’t familiar with. That’s one of the advances, obviously, since my time in grad school. I’m a technology dinosaur! But I can appreciate the value of it.

They’re probably better writers. The BYU program has a heavy emphasis on writing and that seems to be the case with the interns I’ve had. For the most part, they’re pretty good writers. They have a desire for public service. That’s always been there for those that go into an MPA program.

Negative trends? I don’t know. I can’t think of any off the top of my head. Regarding the interns I have had from BYU, the values they come out with are really well placed for public service.

Do you have any last thoughts for someone seeking their first job?

I had an inquiry from a student the other day. He was faced with the choice of continuing to be an intern with [another city] or taking an internal audit position with the [State] Department of Corrections. He was wondering “Which one will serve me best?” I didn’t give him an answer specifically, but [I said] “Here are the things you need to think about:

1. What kind of assignments will you get in that position which will relate to your future goal of city management?

2. Are you going to be exposed to subject matter that will be relevant?

3. Are you going to be able to use and refine skills that will be relevant to city management?”

If you can get all of those, that’s best. I was a performance auditor for the first five years of my career and I was exposed to some of the subject matter that I was ultimately going to see in city management. The assignments that I had included the Department of Administration and the Department of Transportation. But the skills I was required to use were even more valuable for later use in city management.

Someone looking for their first job – if they want to be a city manager – then they need to be thinking about those things: The assignments, the subject matter, and the skill set and are those going to be relevant to city management. You could get that kind of experience in many different positions. If you don’t have many choices, that’s a different situation. You may even try the private sector. Any job that helps you build your interpersonal skills, your conceptual skills, and your analytical skills…you can transfer those to [any job] in the private or public sector.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

New entry-level jobs!

Check out these new jobs in

Lawrence, KS - Management Intern
Mesa, AZ - Budget Associate I
Baltimore, MD - Budget Analyst I
Mesa, AZ - Management Assistant II
Provo, UT - Graduate Intern

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Fort Collins Management Assistantship

I received this information from Josh Jones, a friend of mine in the city of Fort Collins, Colorado.

The City of Fort Collins Management Assistant Program allows current Master of Public Administration students and recent graduates the opportunity to gain valuable career related experience in a wide variety of areas of municipal operations. This position provides future municipal leaders with the opportunity to learn from seasoned professionals in a community consistently rated as one of the best places to live in the country. As a stand-alone municipality of over 140,000 residents, interns have the opportunity to learn about the inner-workings of a full-service city.

The intern will be provided the opportunity to work on projects based in a variety of City departments while maintaining a “home base” in the City Manager’s Office. Interns will be involved in research, analytical work, and managing special projects. This position represents a one-year internship.

Assist the City Manager’s Office in researching high-level issues of concern as they arise. Performs entry level program analysis, organizational and administrative field studies, and statistical analysis of research data. Reports findings of research or study to the City Manager or other executive staff and elected officials in writing and in person. Plan and coordinate various meetings and internal training opportunities. Participate in the City Budget and Capital Improvement Program process.

Graduation from an accredited four-year college or university with major course work in a field related to Public or Business Administration, Political Science, urban planning or closely related field. Applicants must have completed or substantially completed coursework toward a Master of Public Administration or closely related degree by June 2012.

Application deadline is February 21, 2012.

Applicants will submit the following by e-mail,jjones@fcgov.com to Josh Jones:
1) A cover letter stating interest and intent; 2) A current resume listing education, university(ies) attended, degree and completion dates, and professional work experience.